Monday, March 15, 2010

Remember Me

Most of the reviews written exclusively for this site are written for people who have already seen the films discussed. I created the Spoiler Threat Advisory System because I know that "people who have seen Valentine's Day" probably very rarely describes my readership; review by review, it's a professional imperative to warn you if reading what I write might spoil the movie in any real way.

The STAS varies in usefulness from film to film. There are movies like Avatar that are essentially spoiler-proof in their inherent predictability and there are movies like Shutter Island, which spoils itself. In the internet age, as we become overly conscious of "spoilers", we start to think of movies as living or dying by their plot twists (Thanks, M. Night). The problem with Remember Me is that it defies what have become our conventions for how we discuss movies we haven't seen.

I can tell you something about Remember Me that will make you want to go watch it. But part of what makes the experience of watching it so jaw-dropping is not knowing what's coming. So I don't want you to find out.

Three of my friends had already heard about the film's ending not only without having seen the thing but before opening day. This didn't seem like too big a deal to them, however, as what had been spoiled was just the new Robert Pattinson vehicle; they weren't going to see it, anyway. If I wasn't close friends with a Pattinson-fanatic, I might've skipped it, too.

A lot of people aren't going to see Remember Me but a lot of them are going to tear the movie down anyway because of the ending. I think that's as cheap on our part as the movie is in its ending, if not more so. Calling it 'good' or 'bad' doesn't even come into it; this movie, by prank, hubris or earnest failure, earns our discussion.

So: if you haven't seen Remember Me and you've managed to escape hearing about it, do yourself a favor. Stop reading now, get off the internet, don't talk to anybody and go watch the movie. If you have any interest in that special purity of the moviegoing experience, you'll thank me later. Regardless of the movie's quality (or lack thereof), this is a unique piece the likes of which I've really never seen.

With all this in mind, I am now raising the Spoiler Alert Level to red.

So here's a movie that we dismiss without seeing because we've already seen it a hundred times. A dark, brooding rebel courts a blonde goody-two-shoes, they bond over common daddy issues and his moppet little sister, there is some fighting and some reconciliation and then everyone works out their issues and lives happily ever after. Remember Me, however, places its hero at his moment of catharsis and resulting peace in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 and then kills him in the attack. Spoiler and Security Threat Levels will both be red after Remember Me.

What I'm interested in is an in-depth investigation into the film's production. One companion of mine - who'd already heard about the ending before seeing it - described the finale as an afterthought, tagged on to the story to give it a punch and rouse the rabble. Watching the film, this feels like exactly the case, but I find myself desperate to give the film the benefit of the doubt.

We come back to that age-old question: "What were they thinking?" In the case of Remember Me - which in one single scene provides the highest WTF-were-they-thinking quotient of any movie since ... maybe Southland Tales - there are two possible answers. One is that this was an earnest attempt at telling a 9/11 story - we've already had several of them and this is just another angle. The other, as my friend suggested, is that the ending is a manipulative slap in the face. Part of me wonders if we're reacting to this the same way we did to the attacks themselves and that the movie successfully recreates the feelings of shock and anger so many people had back in 2001.

Now, the film opens with a prologue in 1991, in which Emilie de Ravin's character, as a little girl, witnesses her mother's (Martha Plimpton, in an inexplicable cameo) murder on an elevated MTA platform. The World Trade Center towers loom in the background of the scene, which is followed by a title card reading, "ten years later". De Ravin's Ally is introduced as an adult ten minutes on in a classroom she shares unknowingly with Pattinson's Tyler. The class is having a discussion about "recent terrorist attacks".

Given the final-moments reveal of the actual date, this is clearly a deliberate mislead. Does this classroom scene qualify as Shyamalan-esque trickery, Remember Me's equivalent of Olivia Williams not talking at dinner? Because here's the thing: as a savvy film watcher, I took these parcels of information and leapt to the inaccurate assumption that the events of the film were taking place in the aftermath of the attacks. This lead directly to my misinterpretation of pretty much the entire bulk of the story.

"What a bizarre idea," I thought, "to follow around these self-absorbed assholes so concerned with their own drama in post-9/11 New York City." It actually makes for an interesting premise: what must it have been like to live in New York City and not lose anyone in the attacks but still have a great personal tragedy to deal with?

Part of my fallacy was to assume that this was an indirect 9/11 story, rather than an explicit one. Almost every film about New York City made since 9/11 has been, in one way or another, a response to those attacks; viewed as a cultural (rather than political) milestone, we can trace the evolution of our coping mechanism in NYC-set films. For several years a filmmaker would have to make a choice whether or not to mention 9/11 explicitly in even the most innocuous of romantic comedies. When a film now ignores it, you can see us 'forgetting' in a way our bumper stickers claimed we never would.

Almost as a response to this trend, I viewed Remember Me as a coolly weird little movie about New Yorkers who didn't care about 9/11 - and in a way I was right, because within the melodrama of the romance, it hadn't happened yet. Nevertheless, the film is dripping in tragedy and loss, much of it overwritten and much of it not. It was easy to watch the film as being about 9/11 even as it never brought it up.

Several different moments elicited collective gasps from Team Edward in the theater - the final one, in fact, was not nearly so loud as the reaction to Tyler's sister Caroline's surprise haircut. It's an almost profoundly silly film, scoring the folly of youth with Sigur Rós while fairly effectively demonstrating the generational divides between Tyler, his father and his much-younger sister, all of whom believe, at one point or another, that the others just cannot understand their pain.

In fact, the dynamic between these three carries the film in a way that I have to describe as surprisingly unterrible. Pattinson and father Pierce Brosnan have one particularly over-the-top blowout in the latter's conference room (turns out they were at the World Trade Center! The whole time!) that really ought to boil over into absurdity but reveals both men, Pattinson especially, as able actors capable of rising above the pablum. Ruby Jerins, as Caroline, steals the show: she's too young to process the pain she's in and she's getting used as a tether ball for two (of three, come to think of it) father figures in constant battle to show each other up. Jerins' quiet dignity, taken apart from the film as a whole, is something to behold.

In the same way that Remember Me confounds expectations by giving the lead dreamboat a precocious little sister who isn't obnoxious, it gives him an evil corporate father who turns out to be a relatively decent guy. Now, obviously, a lot of this is the result of playing the Low Expectations Game, but I really want to give this movie some points [one] for having the rebellious hero learn that his father loves him and his sister and is trying as hard as he can and [two] for having the hero forgive his father's failures.

And it's at that moment, sitting in his father's office watching a screensaver slideshow of pictures of him and his family, that Tyler's newfound peace is destroyed by his father's office being at the World Trade Center and the date being September 11, 2001.

Fighting my impulse to write this off as a mad grab for pathos and an exploitative, offensive one at that, I'm fascinated by the fact that this movie wraps itself up with an entirely tidy, happy ending immediately prior to the 9/11 attacks. Given that the reveal of the date is inarguably set up as a plot twist - something we're not supposed to have seen coming - are we intended to view the previous two hours as incidental? Or are we intended to take the characters' arcs as a how-to on coping with tragedy as lead-up to the greatest tragedy of the decade we just laid to rest? Is this what Tyler's roommate is referring to when he accuses Tyler of nihilism?

As I previously suggested, could the whole thing be an elaborate experiment to recreate the feelings of horror we experienced on 9/11? "What does it all even mean anymore?" The only way, after all, to make a 9/11 movie and nail that specific emotion is to not let anybody know it's coming. Especially don't let on in any of the marketing or promotion that your movie is even in any way a period film.

But to set out to hit that note is cheap or easy at best and cruel or offensive at worst. There are plenty of people out there you don't have to trick into being moved by 9/11.

Does it even matter? There aren't any rules about what we should or shouldn't adapt into our popular entertainments; if you look at the amount of tasteless co-optations of actual human tragedy in our theaters, this is actually one of the less offensive ones. For example, we can be thankful that director Allen Coulter has the grace to film this ending with a lot of ash but zero shots of the actual attack.

Still, we should be aiming for something more than "less offensive than Precious". And for as angry as Remember Me is going to make people, I wonder that nobody involved in the production saw this coming. Can you imagine the reaction from an audience-member who lost somebody on 9/11 unknowingly walking into this movie, which uses the shock of terrorist attack to withdraw tears for Robert Pattinson? And what of the 14-year-olds comprising Team Edward, five years old in 2001, walking away from this in tears like they'd just seen Titanic?

Regardless, artists will continue drawing inspiration from 9/11 for decades, and there's nothing you can do about it if you wanted to. I don't believe in the idea that Remember Me shouldn't be about what it's about, I just believe that it mostly fails at doing so with anything resembling honor. Rules are meant to be broken and if I say You Can't Successfully Turn 9/11 Into A Plot Twist, somebody like Quentin Tarantino will come along and do just that. In the meantime, what could've been a successful B-level romantic vehicle for an actor stuck in association to the creepiest of terrible roles becomes something far more emotionally invasive than anything Stephanie Meyer could ever hope to put her name on. What an epic misfire.


  1. DUDE! You spoiled the ending!

    Just kidding. This is a very strong piece, Todd. You've justified the word count--I've always firmly believed that there's rhetorical, cultural value in nearly everything out there. There's certainly more to examine in this strange little misfire than critics have been letting on with their vicious, unequivocal dismissals. This has to be, for example, the very first movie that's even *dared* to use 9/11 as a gotcha! plot twist. (The Shymalan reference is quite apt.) That makes it a milestone of some sort: we are now far enough removed from that event that Hollywood suits feel comfortable exploiting it for a cheap whammy shot of an ending. It's shrewd of you to discuss that in relation to how filmmakers initially approached 9/11. The times they are a'changin.

    Excellent piece, one of your finest. Now grapple with a *great* movie for once. Seriously. If you can drum up 1800 words on REMEMBER ME, surely you can find something to glean from, I dunno, WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES? You'll never be a great ballplayer if you only swing at the ones that come straight down the middle.

  2. A friend of mine told me, after seeing REMEMBER ME, that it was Pattinson's annoying roommate who ought to have been in the tower.

    It occurs to me that this may be the film that will finally - finally - bring 9/11 jokes mainstream.

    I'd love to write something about WERCKMEISTER HARMONIES, but how does one qualify a work of such dreamlike power, such existential urgency?

  3. Hoisted by my own petard. I don't know whether to be flattered or peeved.

    As for making 9/11 jokes mainstream: a triumph of dubious value, especially since "South Park" used up a bunch of good ones way back in 2002. Never forget!

  4. SOUTH PARK is controversial. Palin's Real America doesn't like it.

    The idea is that we the people are going to be making jokes at the expense of REMEMBER ME's tragedy. But I could be wrong. Happens a lot.

  5. I'm not sure what I think about the idea that 9/11 is an inherently taboo plot revelation. Sure, that could be pretty upsetting, to go to the movies and be unaware that you were walking into a reminder of personal trauma. But I'm sure we can think of movies where, for example, a character gets unexpectedly raped, and I don't think anyone suggests that we give a heads-up there (aside from the generic MPAA ratings). Is this a dumb analogy? I know it's not the same thing, but I think the tragedy is fair game for something like this.

    WAS anyone actually angry about the ending? Is there some 9/11-widow-blogger who has ranted about it? I'd be genuinely curious.

  6. It's not a terrible analogy. It immediately reminds me of the fourth season episode of SIX FEET UNDER in which the trailer for THE CLEARING triggers a trauma flashback for poor David.

    Anyway, I don't think we should be filtering anything for the sake of the individual audience member that will take it personally. It's obviously not personal.

    As for that 9/11-widow-blogger, I'd love to read that as well, but I'd be surprised if she exists. "I see Robert Pattinson movies to *escape* the memory of my lost husband, not relive it!" That would be something.